Restaurant owners and chefs have been obsessing over how the pandemic might permanently change what diners want. In the past 18 months, so much fine dining has given way to simpler fare — even Noma, the Denmark restaurant known for serving moss garnishes and triple-digit checks, morphed into a burger joint. Perhaps this swing toward familiar comfort foods is here to stay?
No blinging way, at least not for some luxury-seekers. In the latest sign that nature is, in fact, healing, the status dish is making its flashy, made-for-Instagram return. Such menu items — usually eye-poppingly expensive, often flecked with edible gilding and incorporating famously pricey ingredients such as caviar or truffles — have long been with us. They have occasionally made headlines (as they’re designed to do) and sometimes get compiled into world’s-most-expensive lists. But they had been put on mute, like that colleague on Zoom with the ringing phone, as the pandemic shut down restaurants and made takeout our biggest dining splurge.
“There’s a bit of novelty-seeking as people are finally getting out this summer,” says Joe Nunes, a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business who studies the luxury market. “If you want to do things you haven’t done in a year or more, how far away can you get from the mundane than a gold-leaf-covered tomahawk steak?”
Nunes notes such conspicuous consumption went up after the Great Recession, too. “There are some people who are saying now that they’re taking joy in simpler things,” he says. “But there’s a much larger group saying, ‘I’ve lived an austere life, and now I’m going to go out and live a little by spending a lot.’”
In Atlanta, the three-level, 200-seat Steak Market opens next month, aiming to offer a luxe experience straight out of a hedge funder’s fantasy, with a members-only cigar bar, 300 types of whiskey, a raw bar and … several cuts of premium steak completely encased in gold leaf. The beef will include cuts from Georgia farms, “gold-grade American Wagyu, certified Australian Wagyu, and certified Japanese Kobe,” according to Eater Atlanta, and the prices have not yet been made public.
Serendipity 3, the restaurant in Manhattan’s Upper East Side that already holds Guinness world records for most expensive milkshake and sandwich, last month announced it had clinched the title for the planet’s priciest french fries. The $200 “Crème de la Crème Pommes Frites” are as pedigreed as a bichon at the Westminster dog show: Chipperbec potatoes are blanched in Dom Pérignon champagne and triple-cooked in the fat of geese that were raised, cage free, in southwest France, then sprinkled with truffle-infused sel gris from Guérande, France, and black truffles from Umbria, Italy, all served with a Mornay sauce. As anyone who’s ever watched a late-1980s episode of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” should expect, the whole thing is presented on Baccarat crystal and showered with “23K edible gold dust.”
The dish isn’t a novelty act, Serendipity 3 chef Joe Calderone insists. “They warrant the price — these are not just a bunch of expensive ingredients thrown together,” he says. “They really are the best french fries in the world.”
And diners are flocking, with a 10-week wait list for the celebrated dish. Calderone says that rather than being out of step with the current state of the world, his $200 fries might be just what people need. “It’s the right time for indulgence given what’s transpired in the last year and a half,” he says. “People deserve to be spoiled a little bit.”
Not everyone is in the eat-like-the-rich mood. In San Francisco, chef Rob Lam at Lily axed the most expensive item on his menu, a $72 fried rice dish he had invented as a sort of joke to appeal to people looking for something “over-the-top and bougie,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We called it the #1 douchebag fried rice.” For Lam, the novelty wore off after the item became hugely popular, and preparing the intricate dish became a chore.
Others are giving the genre a philanthropic twist. A Dutch restaurant last month began offering a $6,000 burger containing wagyu beef, beluga caviar, Alaskan king crab and white truffle, with the proceeds going to food banks in the Netherlands.
Nunes notes that such dishes appeal more to a newly wealthy diner or someone merely aspiring to that status, not to people with no need to broadcast their affluence. Dishes decked in edible gold are more for people who are compensating, he says, while the superwealthy use more subtle signifiers to communicate their wealth. “If you have enough money that you are always feeling abundance, there’s no need for those things,” he says.
Whatever the motivation, after months of takeout, social media feeds are again filled with over-the-top meals for us proles to envy. A TikTok foodie named Lors last month racked up 2.1 million likes for a video in which she documented a meal under the sparkling chandeliers at Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas’s MGM Grand hotel that cost $445 per person. She captioned it as the “most expensive dinner in the world,” which is probably not accurate, but the multicourse extravaganza was still a study in status dining, with appearances by rich-people staples such as caviar, foie gras, frog legs and lobster.
Lors gave the foie gras dish a seven out of 10 score, docking points for the “tomato candy” incorporated in it. “I don’t like tomato,” she says.
And celebrities are back to using food as a flex. In what might be the most perfect execution of this move, singer and cosmetics tycoon Rihanna celebrated her official entry into the rarefied air of the billionaire’s club this week with an Instagram post of herself enjoying breakfast in bed. The meal was simple — just a massive tin of caviar, perched on a glass bowl of ice — but it spoke loudly. Rihanna, wearing shades and a sweatshirt, surrounded by a sea of (surely high thread-count) white bedding, wielded a single spoon.
The images prompted rapper Lizzo to offer a comment that was at once admiring, profane and obvious: “Rich b---- s---.”
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